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article imageSpain's Tomatito: 60 guitars and family-style flamenco

By Laurence BOUTREUX (AFP)     Sep 15, 2016 in Music

He's won Latin Grammy awards, toured the world and played with flamenco's superstar "gods" Camaron de la Isla and Paco de Lucia.

But at 58, Spain's famed gypsy guitarist Tomatito, who drew a standing ovation at Seville's Flamenco Biennial this week, remains modest and almost shy, wrapped up in his passion for an art form he learned early on as part of a musical family.

"My mother would tell me 'stop it now, don't play more, shut up', as I was playing all day long," he says in an interview ahead of a concert in Seville, sporting ripped jeans and a loose black spotted shirt, his hair long and wavy.

- 'Dream shattered' -

He was an introverted teenager playing in a tavern in Malaga when Jose Monge Cruz -- otherwise known as Camaron de la Isla, considered the greatest flamenco singers of modern times -- got wind of his talent over 40 years ago.

He hired him as his guitarist, and Tomatito -- whose real name is Jose Fernandez Torres -- stayed at the side of the "Picasso of flamenco" for 18 years. Both of them were self-taught and never learned how to read a partition.

"Listening to Camaron sing was like a dream," he recalls, sitting in a hotel in Seville, one of the birthplaces of flamenco, an art-form born centuries ago among the poor gypsies of southern Andalusia.

But then in 1992, "the dream shattered" when Camaron de la Isla died of cancer at the tender age of 41, ravaged by drugs.

Spanish flamenco guitarist  Tomatito  performs during a concert at the Teatro Lope de Vega  in Sevil...
Spanish flamenco guitarist, Tomatito, performs during a concert at the Teatro Lope de Vega, in Sevilla, during the Bienal de Flamenco music festival on September 13, 2016
Cristina Quicler, AFP

Tomatito -- which means "little tomato", a nickname that follows in the footsteps of his grandfather and father who were both known as El Tomate -- was forced "to come back to earth."

He reluctantly went solo, launching a career that took him around the world, blending flamenco and jazz in an echo of the new style of famed guitarist Paco de Lucia, with whom he also played.

- Music in the genes -

More than two decades after his death, Camaron de la Isla remains a part of the lives of Tomatito, his six children and seven grandchildren.

"Even if he died before I was born, he is still present at home where we listen to him, talk about him," says Jose "Tomatito junior," who at 18 is following in his dad's footsteps and is set to bring out his first album as a guitarist.

The family house in Aguadulce on the Mediterranean coast is "full of souvenirs of Camaron and Paco," he adds with a broad smile, as he prepares to go on stage later with his father.

It is also the home of some 60 guitars, he says, including the one with which he plays, "made for Camaron who then gave it to my father."

Tomatito's daughter Mari Angeles also sings, and she too will be joining him on stage later.

While Tomatito says parents cannot force their offspring into music, he adds genes do play a part.

"If you see your grandfather playing guitar when you're tiny, your father playing music at home, then it's all a game for you."

That's exactly how it happened for him, at a time when kids learnt flamenco "on the street... bunched together at the door of a house."

Tomatito was an introverted teenager playing in a tavern in Malaga when Jose Monge Cruz -- otherwise...
Tomatito was an introverted teenager playing in a tavern in Malaga when Jose Monge Cruz -- otherwise known as Camaron de la Isla, considered the greatest flamenco singers of modern times -- got wind of his talent over 40 years ago
Cristina Quicler, AFP

His grandfather El Tomate played the guitar, his father was in the military brass band of Almeria in the southeast and his uncle was also a guitarist who achieved belated fame.

The same is true in his own household.

"When we start playing music, one of my grandsons sings, another dances, it's funny," says Tomatito.

In October, he starts a tour in the United States and central America -- a firm cornerstone of Spain's flamenco scene.

But he bristles when journalists try to label him as Paco de Lucia's successor.

"All of us put together can't hold a candle to Paco," he says.

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